The First Born

While parents of the first newborn are usually responsible and diligent, they are also tentative, anxious, and inconsistent – and to make up for this they may be demanding, strict, and overprotective. Research shows that first-borns talk and walk before children who are born later. As first-borns grow up, these precocious abilities remain – they are the ones who go on to succeed in the world. They get higher grades in school and have stronger leadership and achievement traits. They are conscientious, organized, dependable, accommodating, and persistent. While some first-borns have a strong need for approval, so that they grow up pleasing people and taking care of others (often being taken advantage of in the process), other first-borns are high achievers, hard driven, and ruthless. One common characteristic of many first-borns is that they tend to be perfectionists. They strive for unrealistic goals, don’t deal well with criticism, are devastated by failure, are frequently pessimistic, and take on so many responsibilities that things can go out of control.

The Middle Child (or Second Born)

As each child is born, the disciplinary rules of the family relax – as well as the expectations and pressure put on those born later. Middle children may have many contradictory characteristics, but one common thread seems to hold true – their personalities are usually the opposite of the first-born’s. If the first-born is a loner, the next born will have numerous friends. If the first-born is ambitious, the second-born may be more laid back. The second-born, after all, has to carve out his or her own distinct identity, and the first-born has already made a claim on adult-oriented and ambitious traits. It is common for the middle child to feel squeezed out, with the older and younger children getting more attention – so they turn to the world outside of the family, to their friends. Second-borns or middle children are often sociable and become good mediators. They learn the art of negotiation and compromise. They are generally free-spirited, independent, and sometimes rebellious. Because they don’t get as much attention, they learn not to reveal as much about their thoughts and emotions as others do. And since they didn’t stand out in the family as much while growing up, they place great value on loyalty – they are the likeliest to remain monogamous in their relationships.

The Last Born

By the time the last child is born, the parents often let the child’s development proceed with more of a hands-off approach. Frequently the older brothers and sisters involve themselves in the child-rearing process – which means that the last-born gets an abundance of attention and is often the target of jokes. There is some inclination as well to let the last child remain a child – after all, once the last-born grows up, the parents have to come to terms with new roles and definitions within their own relationship, a situation they may prefer to avoid. Last children grow up with ambivalence, lauded with attention one minute and joked about the next. They are accused of being spoiled, the ones who get everything the other siblings never had. This results in some impetuous behaviors and a tendency to want things immediately. They can become “clowns,” seeking attention with no real worries about the consequences. The last born child is often described as sociable, charming, loving, and open, but also as temperamental, irresponsible, and self-centered.

Birth order has a significant influence on our behavior in adulthood. The tactics we developed in childhood to deal with other members of the family remain with us and can cause conflicts in our relations with other people later on in life. Others may judge us as too ambitious, selfish, withdrawn, irresponsible, or opinionated – and we may wonder why others would even see these attributes as problems! It is to understand how our development has affected our personalities as adults and see how these influences have slanted our ways of dealing with other people. Despite the impact birth order has on us, we can learn to change some of these behaviors and, if change is not indicated, then at least to use our special attributes to their best advantage. The first step in this process is awareness – this leads to understanding, which in turn can lead to intentional change.

What About Only Children?

Only children may carry the characteristics of both first-borns and last-borns. They are referred to as “lonely onlies” because, while they receive substantial attention from their parents, they frequently find themselves with fewer social skills for dealing with their peers. Because they identify so closely with the values of their parents, they relate better as they grow up with people far older or younger. Think of the characteristics of the first-born and then magnify them. Their lives are often highly structured during childhood so they may harbor private resentment about having to grow up as little adults with no real childhood. Only children grow up with a great deal of recognition from their parents and tend to be responsible, ambitious, and perfectionistic, but they also set high standards for themselves and others so that they may be perceived as critical or even controlling.

Dr. Baya Mebarek, Psy.D., LMFT

San Diego Couples and Family Therapy serves the surrounding areas of Sorrento Valley Road as La Jolla, UTC San Diego, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Penasquitos, Poway, University City and Escondido.